Southern Arizona’s only wind-energy farm is under a federal criminal investigation because its turbines killed an endangered bat and a federally protected golden eagle, law enforcement officials say.
An endangered lesser long-nosed bat was among an estimated 2,606 bats killed in turbines at the Willcox-area Red Horse Wind 2 project in its first year, a monitoring report prepared for the operator shows.
That’s more bats than the national, annual average killed at a wind farm, said Jim DeVos, an assistant Arizona Game and Fish Department director for wildlife management.
The lesser long-nosed bat is an endangered species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to decide in March or April whether to delist it due to expanding numbers of the bat in Southern Arizona, where it is a saguaro cactus pollinator.
In the wind farm’s first year, from July 2015 to July 2016, its 15 wind turbines, standing more than 400 feet tall, also killed an estimated 190 birds including the eagle, the company’s report shows.
That matches the western regional average for bird deaths at a wind farm, DeVos said. The golden eagle is protected from killing by the Bald and Golden Eagle Act.
The actual number of animal carcasses recovered at the wind farm that year was much lower: 226 bats and 12 birds.
The farm’s consultant, SWCA Environmental Consultants of Flagstaff, used computer models to make the larger estimates, said Todd Fogarty, a spokesman for the operator, Red Horse Wind 2 LLC.
The criminal investigation is in the hands of the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, said Tamara Kurey, a wildlife service special agent based in Rio Rico. The division is reviewing the case to determine if it should be prosecuted.
The case was referred to the Justice Department in December, said Kurey, who declined to release more details or case reports due to the pending investigation. A division spokeswoman didn’t respond to emailed questions about the investigation.
The wildlife service has received informal confirmation that more lesser long-nosed bat fatalities occurred at Red Horse after the first year, said Steve Spangle, a service field supervisor in Phoenix. The information came from an environmental consultant for the company, he said.
“I’m aware of other fatalities; they are part of the same investigation,” agreed special agent Kurey.
Asked about the federal investigation, Red Horse’s Fogarty said the wind farm works closely with the wildlife service and Game and Fish, including notifying them immediately when a protected species is killed.
“It is standard procedure for USFWS to investigate the fatalities of any listed species. All bird and bat fatalities documented at the project are attributed to collision with wind turbines,” Fogarty said.
Chose not to seek special permits
The criminal investigation could have been avoided, however, if the company had chosen to seek permits in advance that would have allowed it to kill a certain number of the protected species.
The wildlife service recommended before the wind farm fired up that the company prepare a federal habitat conservation plan for the endangered bat, said Scott Richardson, a service biologist.
That would have allowed it to avoid prosecution for the accidental death of one or more endangered bats in the turbines. Typically, such plans include steps by a project developer to compensate for any killing, harming or harassing of an endangered species, legally defined as “take.”
The company chose not to do that, and also opted not to seek a permit under the Bald and Golden Eagle Act that would have authorized accidental deaths of a certain number of eagles.
Since the deaths, it has applied for a golden eagle permit and submitted a draft habitat conservation plan for the bat, although it is now consulting with the wildlife service on what route to follow if the bat is delisted this year.
“Red Horse Wind 2 had been carefully sited based on intensive due diligence, including working closely with the USFWS, AGFD, and local experts and conducting pre-construction avian and bat field studies,” Fogarty said, when asked why it hadn’t sought the permits allowing legal killings of bats and eagles.
Company was lax, Audubon claims
Environmentalists said the large number of bat deaths and the deaths of the protected animals shows that not enough preparation and mitigation work was done by the company before the facility opened.
The Cochise County Board of Supervisors approved a special-use permit for the wind farm in June 2013, after turning down an appeal by Arizona Audubon. Audubon had challenged a recommendation in favor of the project by the county Planning and Zoning Commission.
Tice Supplee, an Arizona Audubon official who had pushed years ago for tough standards and extensive pre-construction reviews for the wind farm, called the estimated 2,606 bat deaths a “horribly large number.”
She said the wind farm proponents’ surveys conducted before construction started failed to adequately document bat activity.
“They paid the price for that — killing all the bats in those turbines,” said Supplee.
It’s “ironic” that the company could have avoided investigations by seeking permits in advance, Supplee said. It bothers her that the permit provisions are often cited by critics as examples of excessive regulation, whereas these deaths happened “because they didn’t want to do the work.”
Fogarty, however, said bird and bat surveys for the project were conducted in accord with both Game and Fish and the wildlife service’s guidelines, and were done during every season of the year.
They indicated the risk to birds and bats was low, he said in an email.
Part of TEP’s goals
for renewable energy
“Red Horse Wind 2 is committed to operating a project that both contributes to the renewable-energy economy in Arizona and minimizes any adverse environmental impact,” said spokesman Fogarty.
The wind farm, lying about 20 miles west of Willcox, furnishes enough electricity to Tucson Electric Power to power about 8,300 homes, Fogarty said. That amounts to 30 megawatts of electricity on a continuous basis. It is part of a larger complex that contains enough solar panels nearby to produce another 55 megawatts for TEP, he said.
On Jan. 15, TEP announced it plans to issue a request for proposals for design and construction of additional wind-energy facilities to power up to 31,000 homes.
TEP’s current and planned additional wind-energy facilities are aimed at helping the utility reach its goal of getting 30 percent of its electricity by 2030 from renewables, double the state’s requirement for utilities by 2025.
Sooner or later, people need to use less energy so we don’t need as many wind farms and other energy facilities, said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
“That’s at root of the problem. Obviously, that’s a pipe dream, but that’s a part of it,” Serraglio said.
Company working to reduce wildlife deaths
The tradeoff between renewable, non-fossil fuel energy produced by wind farms and the deaths of birds caught in its turbines has generated considerable debate and controversy nationally as well as locally.
Bat deaths in the turbines have not drawn as much attention, but they are apparently a major threat to overall bat populations, national reports and news articles suggest.
Government biologists are working with wind-farm operators to try to find ways to reduce the number of wildlife deaths.
“After the first year we sat down with the folks at Red Horse and Game and Fish, and talked about potential solutions.
“They’ve been amenable to implementing them,” said Richardson, supervisory biologist in the wildlife service’s Tucson office. “My understanding is that they have started to implement them.
“They haven’t tried to avoid the issue. They’re working on the issue,” Richardson said.
Any time you have high levels of wildlife mortality, whether it’s on a road or a wind farm, it’s obviously a concern to Game and Fish, assistant director DeVos said.
“We’re having fruitful discussions on modifications they can do to reduce mortality,” he said.
One step contemplated is for the company to increase the wind speed required before it fires up the three turbines that have caused the most deaths, Game and Fish officials said.
Fogarty noted that Red Horse agreed before construction started to reduce the number of planned wind turbines from 28 to 15.
The company has paid TEP to refit a series of power poles in the area with equipment to reduce the risk that they’ll electrocute golden eagles.
For bat mitigation, the company has acquired an inactive mine, the Montezuma Mine in Santa Cruz County, to preserve its bat roosting habitat. It has installed fencing around mine shaft openings to prevent disturbances to roosting bats, Fogarty said.
The company is in the second year of bird and bat death monitoring, to determine if the first year’s data was an anomaly or is typical of what would be expected in that region, he said.
Given the work it did with pre-construction field studies and other “due diligence,” he said, Red Horse believes “any level of take is a concern to us.”